Olli Thomson

Songs of Lao

Since visiting Laos a couple of years ago I’ve been on the lookout for a good photobook of the country but the few that I had discovered were mostly aimed at tourists looking for pictures of the country’s best known sites. It was only a couple of months ago that I came across Songs of Lao from Nazraeli Press. The book was published in 2016 but for some reason I had never seen it until recently.

Songs of Lao was published in association with Friends Without a Border, a children’s medical charity founded by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu. Izu set up the charity after witnessing the suffering of children during photographic trips to Angkor in Cambodia in the mid 1990’s. Working with the wider photographic community and beyond Izu’s organisation was able to open the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap in 1999. As well as providing an extensive range of medical services the hospital also worked with local health care providers to improve the overall standard of both administration and care in the region.

More recently, in 2015, the Laos Friends Hospital for Children opened in Luang Prabang with the same ambition to provide treatment for children, education and support for local healthcare workers and prevention through outreach programmes into the wider community. This book was published to mark that new phase in the work and to raise awareness and support for Friends Without a Border. The book itself is beautifully produced as you would expect from Nazraeli Press and is made up of pictures from six different photographers, including Izu, who have worked in Laos. Each contributor also has a short biographical piece explaining his or her connection with the country. While the different photographers bring different styles to the project all the contributions are consistently excellent. In addition to the photographs the book also provides a lot of information on Izu’s charity and its work in Laos and Cambodia.

The book is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK and all profits go to support the Lao Friends Hospital. Here are some sample images: the first two from Izu himself and the second pair from Michael Kenna.

Fog on the Potomac

In January last year Washington DC experienced some bitingly cold weather with overnight temperatures dropping to -10C or even lower. On Sunday January 7th the low reached -13C. Five days later when these photographs here were taken the unusually cold weather had given way to unusually warm weather with a low of 14C and a high of 18C. The most spectacular result of these freak conditions was that the frozen Potomac river went straight from ice to steam and the river was covered with a dense layer of drifting, rolling fog. I was out for a walk that morning and in the absence of a ‘proper’ camera I took these pictures with my mobile phone.

Most pictures are of the river Potomac from the Washington DC side around the Arlington Memorial Bridge. A couple are looking back towards Rosslyn on the Virginia side of the river. There are also a couple from the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial where the same effect was visible over the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and amazingly could be seen inside the Lincoln Memorial itself where the moisture on the frozen floor was also turning to steam.

Sofia on Ektar

Here are a few shots from my second roll of 2019 shot in January on my Minolta XD with the Rokkor 24/2.8 MD and the Rokkor 50/1.4 MD lenses on Kodak Ektar 100.

The first shot is of the minaret of the Banya Bashi mosque, the only functioning mosque in Sofia which dates from the 16th century during the time of the Ottomans. It was reputedly designed by Mimar Sinan who was responsible for some of the most outstanding Ottoman mosques including the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The second picture shows the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Serdika which lies beneath modern Sofia with the Orthodox church of Saint Nedelya in the background.

The Myth of Capa

Here is a fascinating article calling into question the accepted narrative concerning Robert Capa’s images from the D-Day landings. It seems that even some of those who have been pushing this narrative for decades are now accepting that at least some elements of it are dubious, including John Morris, Capa’s photo editor at Life magazine. It would be interesting to read a response to the arguments made by Coleman from others who still maintain the truth of the story.

Debunking the Myths of Robert Capa on D-Day

Single Shot – Friends

We lived near Tirana’s main park, the Grand Park, and most days I walked there, usually accompanied by a small gang of local street dogs who had adopted me into their pack. In the heavily polluted city the park together with the imaginatively named Artificial Lake provided one of the few escapes from the traffic, the pollution and the general chaos of Tirana. Every day the locals would come to walk, to play, to cycle, to picnic or just to sit and relax. On the weekends in particular the older generation would put on their Sunday best and promenade on the pathway that winds around the lake.

On this particular day I was watching life from a park bench when these two older gentlemen, strolling and chatting, approached and sat down a little way from me. They sat there in mostly companionable silence, exchanging the occasional few words, and I snapped this picture of them discreetly. They reminded me of my grandfather, though he was of an even older generation. Granda Moore always wore a suit and tie. I can’t recall him ever wearing anything else. He wore simple but sturdy leather shoes and he never went out without a hat. I could well imagine him sitting on the bench beside these two passing the time of day.

Sometimes the Best Camera…

…is the one you don’t have with you.

On Sunday past I was standing in the Placa de Sant Jaume in Barcelona together with a few thousand other people. Serendipitously, we had chosen to visit Barcelona during the city’s Festival of Saint Eulalia, Eulalia being the co-patron saint of Barcelona whose feast day falls on February 12th.

All of us in the Placa de Sant Jaume were awaiting the arrival of a parade of colles castelleres, the clubs who maintain the Catalonian tradition of building human castles. On a stage in a corner an excited master of ceremonies announced each of the clubs as they paraded into the square accompanied by musicians playing the gralla and timbal – an old Catalan wind instrument and a small drum.

I say paraded but that’s not entirely accurate. There were no ropes, no barriers, no crowd control of any sort, just a mass of people milling around like us. Into this already packed square the colles castelleres arrived asking, encouraging  and cajoling us spectators to move a little this way, a little more that way until they created a space just big enough for them to work in. In all six groups, I think, formed around us in the square.

Talking Pictures – Corner Store

This picture was taken in Tbilisi on one of the streets in the Sololaki district. At the time my main camera was the Sony NEX-5 and a friend who numbered the same Sony among his many cameras let me have the use of the compact 16mm f2.8 lens for a couple of days. This lens was routinely panned by reviewers and users and so I had never been tempted to buy it even though it was inexpensive. Instead, I eventually picked up the Sigma 19mm f2.8 lens which was even cheaper and a great performer.

So I took the 16mm for a walk round Sololaki and came across this little grocery store on a street corner with a display of fruit and veg outside. What really caught my eye was that blue wall, standing out in a neighbourhood that was mostly shades of grey or brown. Together with the bright colours of the fruit in the crates it was a blaze of vivid colour in an area where every other colour was faded or washed out.

Single Shot – Mind Your Language

On Tsar Ivan Asen II Street in Sofia demonstrating once again that English is the international language of graffiti. Taken with a Minolta XD and Rokkor MD 24/2.8 on Kodak Ektar and fine tuned in Lightroom.

This picture also illustrates the XD’s hair trigger shutter release. I was waiting for the older gentleman to move into the scene from the left but intended for him to be a little further into the frame. What I thought was my gentle pressure on the release button was enough to fire the shutter a fraction too soon. I was relieved when I got the developed film back and saw that I had at least got some of him in the frame.

Undoubtedly if I used the XD more I would adjust to this but alternating it with my FM2n which has greater resistance and travel in the shutter release (not to mention a couple of digital cameras) means that I always get caught out once or twice on each roll.

Emotion, Voice, Life

Not one but two great photography articles this morning. In The Observer there is an interview with Don McCullin and Giles Duley. A retrospective of McCullin’s career opens at Tate Britain tomorrow (5 February), which I’ll be visiting next month, and he has been doing a few interviews in advance of that. This is the most interesting of them, partly because McCullin started his professional career at the Observer; mostly because the interview is a three way conversation between the interviewer and the two photographers. Duley is a triple amputee having stepped on an IED in Afghanistan yet despite his horrific injuries he was able to return to his photographic career, documenting the long term consequences of war.

It’s about the emotional – we’re not just photographers, we gather emotionally. A camera doesn’t mean a toss to me. I just put it in front of me and transfer the image through that piece of glass and that film. But I’m using my emotion more than I’m using that piece of equipment. Don McCullin

If I hadn’t been able to take a photograph again then I would rather have died in Afghanistan. Photography, it’s me. It’s my voice. Simple as that. Giles Duley

The First Roll of 2019

Winter was something of a disappointment. I had been expecting heavy snowfall, with days or weeks of snow lying thick on the ground. Instead there were occasional days of snow which clung on for a little while before melting to slush. I did get out with a camera on one snowy day in January and took some winter pictures pictures around the city. Despite having a new Nikkor lens to experiment with I used my Minolta for these shots since some of them they will be used for a forthcoming post on another website requiring the XD. I believe all of these were shot with the Rokkor MD 24/2.8, though since I’ve stopped taking detailed notes I’m not completely sure. I used Ilford Delta 400.


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